Rupe Mills: The One Man Ballclub

 

IT WAS TWO MONTHS into the season and Newark’s Rupe Mills was leading the Federal League in batting, home runs, triples, assists, fielding percentage – even most pitching wins and strikeouts. In fact, Rupe Mills was leading the league in EVERY category because he was the ONLY player in the league that year.

See, this was 1916, and the Federal League had disbanded before the season began.

THE STORY of how Rupe Mills became the sole survivor of the Federal League dates back a couple of years when the New Jersey native was a stand-out athlete-scholar at Notre Dame. Born October 12, 1892, Rupert Frank Mills was the only child of Frank and Mary Mills. His father was a delivery driver from a long line of pre-Revolutionary War New Jerseyan’s while Mary traced her family line to more recent German and Irish immigrants. Though his father was raised a Presbyterian, the couple decided to raise Rupert in his mother’s Catholic faith.

Rupe, as he was called, grew to be a strapping 6’ 2” (some contemporary articles put him at 2 to 3 inches taller than that), almost a giant when compared to the average 5’ 7” height of the turn-of-the-century American male. His physical presence translated well into athletics, and by the time he was a freshman at Newark’s Barringer High School he had already made a name for himself in the local sports scene. At Barringer, Mills lettered in four sports and made headlines when he broke the state’s high jump record. By the time he graduated in 1910, he had offers on the table from the Giants, Indians and Pirates.

While it would seem only natural for the young star to sign with one of those big league organizations, Rupe had his eyes on becoming a lawyer and shelved the offers. Mills first attended Newark’s St. Benedict’s Prep, then enrolled in Notre Dame in 1912. At this time, Notre Dame was the non-Protestant-version of the Ivy League, a place where devout Catholics like Rupe Mills were welcomed and could earn an education on par with a Yale or Harvard. And, like the Ivy’s before them, Notre Dame was earning a reputation as one of the leading sports programs in the country. With his four-sport expertise and intellectual ability, it was only natural that Mills would excel at Notre Dame.

WHEN THE FOOTBALL COACHES got a look at the imposing freshman that fall, Mills was immediately put to work as the Fighting Irish’s right end. One of Mills’s teammates was a young Knute Rockne, who, like himself, came from an urban working-class background. Rockne, the team’s left end at the time, called Mills “one of the best ends he ever knew.” The team he joined was destined to become the school’s first great football squad, the one that made “Notre Dame” a household name. This day came on November 1, 1913, when the Irish humiliated the much-heralded Army team, 35-13. Notre Dame’s quarterback Gus Dorais threw forward pass after forward pass to Knute Rockne, a tactic that up until then had been rarely used, but since has become the foundation of the modern game. In Rupe’s three years playing end for the Irish, the school went a majestic 20-2, including identical undefeated 7-0 seasons in 1912 and 1913.

Not only were his services in demand on the gridiron, but also on the basketball court, track field, and the baseball diamond. In his three-years as starting center on the basketball team, the school went 38-10. And, like he did at Barringer High, Mills excelled in track, specializing in javelin. But, just like back in Jersey, Rupe’s favorite sport was baseball.

Alternating between first and second base, Mills helped lead the Irish to a 45-14 record. Robert Mills, one of Rupe’s relatives, wrote a wonderful biography of his ancestor that assembled the records of the school’s football, baseball, and basketball teams during the years Mills played on them. According to the final tally, if Rupe played on the team, it had a more than 80% chance of winning. Although his football teammates Knute Rockne, Gus Dorais and Ray Eichenlaub are remembered today as Notre Dame icons, it was Mills who was by far the most well-rounded athlete of his era. During his time with the Irish, Mills earned nine athletic letters in 4 different sports, becoming just the second in the history of the university to do so.

One would expect that, in the course of earning nine varsity letters, Mills would have little time for academics, but the opposite is true. He majored in Law and ascended to president of the Senior Law Class. And, on top of his 4-sports and academic load, Rupe still found time to act in several school theatre productions alongside football teammates Rockne and Eichenlaub. By the time he graduated with a Bachelor of Law degree in the spring of 1915, it can be said with confidence that Rupe Mills wrung everything he possibly could from his time at Notre Dame.

THE SAME SCOUTS that had spied Mills as a high school kid back in Newark had kept tabs on him throughout his career at Notre Dame, and, in ordinary times, it would have been a given that a talented athlete like him would be offered a contract by several National and American League teams upon graduation. But 1915 was not ordinary times.

The year before saw the upstart Federal League force its way into becoming a “third major league.” Though less talented than the established National and American Leagues, the Federals did manage to lure several major league stars into its ranks, including Joe Tinker, Three-Finger Brown and Hal Chase. The vacuum caused by the Federal League created a salary war in the two elder leagues that enabled many stars of the game to negotiate contracts with a leverage they’d never had before. Despite being the new kids on the block and being ignored by the game’s leading newspaper, the Sporting News, the Federal League enjoyed an unexpectedly successful 1914 season, helped by a close pennant race that lasted right up until the last week of the season. 1915 saw several more players defect to the Federals, and Major League Baseball went into full panic mode.

ENTER RUPE MILLS. Besides poaching established big league players, the Federals tapped into the college pipeline as well. The salary war now raging between the three leagues meant that college stars such as Mills could expect a nice signing bonus and contract, especially from the Federals.

One factor leading to Mills signing with the upstarts was that, in 1915, the league transferred the Indianapolis franchise to Rupe’s hometown of Newark. Owned by oil baron Harry Sinclair, Indy had won the 1914 pennant and their move east was the first step of a planned move into the lucrative New York market. Though they called Newark home, the team actually played their home games just over the borderline in the neighboring city of Harrison. Regardless of this minor geographic detail, it was thought to be a coup if the club could sign a hometown star to endear the team to the community – and Rupe Mills fit that bill exactly.

Rupe immediately put his newly-earned law degree to work by successfully negotiating a lucrative, and rare for its time, 2-year contract with Newark. In terms which Rupe later described as “iron clad,” the contract called for $3,000 in 1915 and the same for 1916. Team president Pat Powers signed the deal, and Rupe Mills turned pro.

THE 1915 NEWARK TEAM, dubbed the “Peppers” or “Peps” in the press, turned out to be much less successful than they had been when they won the pennant in 1914. A lot had to do with the loss of their star outfielder, Benny Kauff, who had defected to the New York Giants before being awarded to the Federal’s Brooklyn franchise. After a sub-.500 record, manager Bill Phillips was fired a third of the way into the season and replaced by infielder Bill McKechnie. Under him, the Peps posted a 54-45 record and gave McKechnie his first taste of managing, a vocation that would eventually see him become the only manager in history to win pennants with three different clubs plus two world championships and his own plaque in Cooperstown. The 1915 Peppers also boasted a second future Hall of Famer, outfielder Edd Roush, who would hit .298 for the 5th place team.

The signing of Rupert Mills by the Peps caused the excitement hoped for as the city welcomed home its home-grown star. He made his professional debut on June 23, the day after he signed his “iron clad” contract. On the bright side, Mills hit a double in four at-bats against the Pittsburgh Stogies, but on the dark side of the ledger the hometown hero whiffed twice and made three errors at first base. Bill Phillips decided to keep Mills at first and let him play through what was hoped to be just temporary rookie jitters. A few days later, Mills recorded what was probably the highlight of his pro career, a 2 for 3 day against Kansas City that saw him hitting a game winning bases-loaded triple. Unfortunately, days like that were few, and Bill McKechnie made the decision to bench Mills when he took over the team in July. Newark’s own rode the pines for most of July and August before McKechnie decided to give him a second shot in September. Mills managed 17 hits in 75 at-bats, which raised his batting average to .201. Hardly the work of a phenom, but he showed enough improvement that he was expected to be the team’s starting first sacker for 1916.

Problem was, there was no 1916 – at least for everyone except Rupe Mills.

THE SALARY WAR and player poaching brought on by the Federals’ arrival had shaken the two existing leagues to their core. Besides loss of revenue, the National and American Leagues were looking at the probable destruction of the one thing that had always held it together – the reserve clause. This pillar of organized baseball bound a player to the team that signed him in perpetuity, or until the team released him. The Federal League’s main attraction to players was that it did not utilize the reserve clause, thereby giving the players a bit more freedom than they had ever enjoyed. This radical idea and the moderate financial success of the Federals’ 1914 season was enough to make the National and American League owners nervous. However, the Feds’ 1915 season was a financial failure that cost the league any leverage they had over the two elder leagues. By the winter of 1915, the Federal League was in full collapse and any hopes for a 1916 season evaporated. This left over 200 players jobless and 8 owners out of a franchise. As a concession, the National an American League magnates agreed to let the owners of the Chicago Whales and St. Louis Terriers buy the Cubs and Browns respectively, while the former major leaguers were welcomed back without any penalty. The rest of the players were seeded amongst the 16 big league teams, with most going into the minor leagues and forced to accept contracts for much less than what they earned in the Federal League. Those players fortunate enough to have already signed 1916 contracts were handed a five hundred dollar check to go away.

AS A .200 HITTING ROOKIE with no experience outside the Federal League, Rupe Mills was offered the $500 check and a $1200 contract with the minor league Toronto Maple Leafs. To the newly minted lawyer, this was completely unacceptable. He signed a contract that promised a $3000 salary for the 1916 season, with no mention of any cancellation if the club or league failed. Besides, according to Mills, Toronto wanted a third baseman, a position he was completely unfamiliar with. On top of that, if he failed to make good at this new position, Mills would be released outright, negating any obligation for Toronto to fulfill its end of the contract. So, in theory, by accepting the $500 payout and signing with Toronto, Rupe could be out $2500 if he failed to make good. Mills told Toronto no thanks and informed the Peppers he would prefer to stick to their original agreement.

At first, club president Pat Powers seemed amused by Mills’s challenge to his terms, after all, there was no more Newark Peppers and no more Federal League. Surely this had to be a cheap publicity stunt or a desperate cash-grab, but Powers soon came to the realization that the newly minted lawyer was serious. Powers attempted to negotiate with his player, but to no avail. The bizarre legal battle soon made headlines across the country, culminating in an even more bizarre outcome.

It’s not clear who originally came up with the solution to the contract dispute – some say it was Powers’ exasperated last ditch attempt to call Mills’s bluff, while the ballplayer claimed that it was he who suggested the resolution. Regardless of who it was, it was decided that Mills would indeed get his $3000, but he was to earn every penny of it. The terms agreed to stated that Mills was to arrive at the Harrison ballpark every day at 10 o’clock and practice in full uniform until 6, with a 2-hour break for lunch. This schedule would approximate the time Mills would have been expected to follow if the Newark Peppers had survived into 1916.

In the absence of any coaches, teammates or even fans, Rupe Mills showed up each morning at the ballpark and did his exercises and warmups, followed by all the practice he could manage with just himself. At first he was issued two left-over Federal League balls to use, but to the surprise of Powers, Mills soon wore those out and requested more. This curious pantomime went on all spring, interrupted only by the occasional sportswriter who would stop by to interview the sole survivor of the Federal League. Rupe, no doubt aided by his theatrical experience at Notre Dame, gave a great interview, describing in detail how he pitched, batted and fielded all by himself. One writer arrived to find an empty ballpark except for a lone local boy. When the writer inquired after the last Federal League player, the boy pointed up to the roof of the ballpark and said Mills was up there retrieving a ball. Sure enough, the ballplayer appeared, shimmied down the pillar that held up the roof of the grandstand and resumed practice. Rupe reveled in his leading the league in every offensive, pitching and defensive category and added that, should he be offered a big league contract tomorrow, he would be able to report in top physical condition.

The farcical grudge match finally concluded on July 20th. Mills and Powers agreed to an undisclosed settlement, and the ballplayer signed with the Detroit Tigers. Under a pre-arranged agreement, Mills was farmed out to Harrisburg of the New York State League for the rest of the season. Rupe got into 70 games and hit .256 for the last place club.

SO, WHILE HIS ATHLETIC CAREER was stagnating in 1916, Rupe’s chosen vocation of Law was not. In the off season, he passed the New Jersey Bar. But just when he seemed ready to embark on a successful law career, Mills decided to give pro ball another shot. His contract was sold to the Denver Bears of the Western League. Playing with a team for an entire season for the first time since college, Mills posted the best season of his pro career: .285 with a .417 slugging percentage and leading the league in doubles, (37), assists (75), fielding percentage (.987) and games (149). There is every reason to believe that he would be moved up a few rungs in 1918, possibly even to Detroit, except for one thing: World War I.

As a college grad, Mills was fast-tracked through officer training and was soon a first lieutenant in the 11th Field Artillery. He shipped overseas with the 29th Division and saw service on the Western Front. Mills credited his strong Catholic faith with helping him get through this perilous period of his life.
Rupe returned to the States in June of 1919. Now 26 years-old, Mills decided to settle down in Newark and focus on a career. However, the Northeast Jersey and New York City area was a hotbed of semi-pro baseball. Several high-profile teams employed former pro and college players to appear on weekends throughout the Metropolitan area where they could almost double their weekly salary by playing the game they loved. Ever the loyal hometown boy, Rupe played for the local Newark Meadowlarks well into the mid-1920s.

ALTHOUGH HE EARNED his law degree and successfully passed the Bar Exam, Mills decided against a career before the bench. He decided to go into the insurance business with Joe Byrnes, Jr., a classmate from Notre Dame, and later founded his own firm, Rupert F. Mills & Co.

Mills’s experience in France gave him the taste for Army life, and he joined the famed Essex Troop of the New Jersey National Guard. This cavalry unit dated back to the 1890s and boasted some of North Jersey’s leading citizens as members. Originally a ceremonial unit, World War I had necessitated it to become a practical fighting outfit, and the post-war years saw the troop floundering and on the verge of disbanding. With his natural leadership ability and charismatic personality, Rupe Mills was asked to step in and reorganize the unit. Promoted to Captain, Mills successfully saved the Essex Troop and guided it through the difficult period of modernization.

Rupe’s prominent business career and captaincy in the Essex Troop led to his being tapped for political office. A life-long Republican, Mills held several different elected positions including undersheriff of Essex County and two terms in the lower house of the New Jersey Legislature. By the end of the 1920s, Mills was recognized as an up and comer in Republican circles and, besides running unopposed for Essex County Sheriff, there was serious talk of his being groomed for the Governorship. As a tribute to the respect Rupe commanded among his peers, a group of friends and business associated founded the Rupert F. Mills Association. In the span of two years 800 young men from all corners of the country became members of this charitable organization that donated gifts to the needy at Christmastime.

Rupe’s Catholic faith remained an important part of his life. He maintained correspondences with the priests he knew from Notre Dame, and his close friends all had stories of how he would surmount any and all obstacles in order to attend Sunday mass. Mills never married and shared a Newark home with his parents. As an adult, Mills was ferociously proud of his Notre Dame pedigree, and was active in a variety of alumni groups. He kept in intimate contact with Knute Rockne who, by this time, was the head coach of the Irish and the most well-known football player in the country. Rupe enthusiastically played host to any Notre Dame team that ventured his way for a competition and actively recruited athletes and scholars for the school. Rockne called him, “my right eye in the east.”

AS THE DECADE came to a close, Rupe Mills’s future had never seemed brighter. Then came a fateful excursion to Lake Hopatcong in western New Jersey. The trip was a gathering of a small group of Republican politicians and, during a break in the meetings, Rupe decided to take a canoe out for a trip around the lake. Although he initially refused because he could not swim, Rupe was able to convince fellow assemblyman Louis Freeman to join him. As an added precaution, Mills gave Freeman a life belt to wear. It would turn out that he would need it.

The pair were about 100 feet from shore when a motorboat sped past and its wake overturned the canoe, pitching both men into the water. While a 100 foot swim would have been no problem for an athlete like Mills, Rupe realized that his companion could not swim and was panicking despite his floatation belt. The quick thinking Mills instructed Freeman to grab hold of one of the oars and began pulling him to a nearby dock. Then, just as Freeman was being hauled out of the water, Rupe suffered a catastrophic heart attack and slipped beneath the surface. He died before anyone could reach him.

In a scene that is almost unthinkable today, upwards of twenty thousand people lined the sidewalks to silently watch as an artillery caisson bearing Rupert Mills’s flag draped coffin snaked through the streets of Newark. The Essex Troop, now reorganized by Captain Mills as Troop A of the 102nd Cavalry, escorted their fallen leader’s body to its final resting place at St. Mary’s Cemetery. Among the mourners were Rupe’s parents, Franks and Mary, Governor Morgan Foster Larson, a delegation of Notre Dame alumni and Colonel Norman Schwartzkopf, first commander of the New Jersey State Police and father of future General Norman Schwartzkopf, Jr. Rupe’s old pal and teammate, Knute Rockne, was supposed to act as one of the pallbearers but could not make it to Newark in time.

SO, THAT’S THE STORY of Rupe Mills, the “One Man Ballclub.” You’ll always find his tale in a much abbreviated form in those books and articles on funny sports stories, and at first, that’s just what I thought this story would be. However, the more I dived into Rupe’s life, the more I wanted to tell the whole story of the man. You’d think that, with all he accomplished in his 35 years, he would be better known beyond his being the lone Federal League player of 1916. His story is an inspiring one, rising from his beginnings as the son of a blue collar deliveryman in Newark to attend one of the most prestigious universities in the country. He was a part of the football team that created the modern version of the game and, to this day, only 4 athletes have lettered in four sports at Notre Dame, a remarkable record that will most likely never be matched. He served his country in war and in peace, did his utmost to make the world around him a better place and died saving the life of another. Yeah, Rupe Mills was the “One Man Ballclub,” but never forget he was so much more.

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I NEED TO THANK subscriber D.H. for sending me that large package of Rupe Mills material a while back. It was this collection of newspaper clippings that started me down the path of digging deeper into Rupe’s life beyond the quirky incident that made him a go-to amusing baseball history footnote. I know it took a while for this piece to come to fruition, but I think it was worth the wait in order to give Rupe the story he deserved.
Researching contemporary newspaper articles on Mills revealed how talented an athlete and well-respected part of the Newark community he was. I mentioned earlier that Rupe’s relative, Robert Mills, wrote a detailed biography of him and you can find that on the Ancestry.com website

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This week’s story is Number 16 in a series of collectible booklets.

 

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. I will also start a Subscription to the series as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 006 and will be active through October of 2019. Booklets 1-5 can be purchased as a group, too.

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